At the World Food Summit in 1996, La Via Campesina changed the face of agriculture forever by creating and advocating for the idea of food sovereignty. La Via Campesina, which translates to “The Peasants’ Way,” is an international, grassroots social movement — arguably the biggest one around the world. It works to educate and empower small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, land workers, rural women and indigenous people everywhere so that they can reclaim their power in the global food system.
The Origins of La Via Campesina
In Belgium in 1993, farmers – both men and women – from four different continents came together to found La Via Campesina. During this period of globalization, small farmers needed to unite to protect their voices. An estimated 200 million people are now part of this movement.
The International Peasant’s Movement
La Via Campesina, also known as the International Peasant’s Movement, has three main goals:
Defending food sovereignty and agrarian reform
Promoting agroecology and defending local seeds
Promoting peasant rights and defending against the criminalization of peasants
Defending Food Sovereignty
When people speak about global food equity, they often refer to food security. Food sovereignty takes this concept of equal distribution of food one step further, and advocates for control of the food system by those who actually produce, distribute and consume.
According to the Declaration of Nyéléni at the first global forum on food sovereignty in 2007, “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
World agricultural systems are the most productive they’ve ever been. The issue today isn’t a lack of food, but rather power imbalances in the control of the food, preventing those who need nourishment most from getting it. Food sovereignty supports that everyone – producers, harvesters, consumers – has the right to take back power from the markets and corporations.
Another factor is the struggle for land and agrarian reform. The organization seeks to ensure that those who produce have the rights to use and manage lands, water, livestock, etc., rather than the corporate sector.
This movement is deeply connected to sustainability and believes that agroecology is a way to combat the economic system that places more importance on profit than people around the world. Small farmers comprise almost half of the world’s population and have shown already that they can produce food in an eco-friendly, sustainable way.
Agroecology is a comprehensive view of farming which states that processes and practices should be adapted to fit local conditions. By creating agricultural systems based on the independence of peasants, without the use of oil or other fossil fuels, agrochemicals, or genetic modification, both the environment and global food systems will make strides towards a safer future. It relies on the decentralization of agricultural power. While this may sound counterintuitive in an increasingly globalized world, decentralization gives power back to the people who need it most.
An integral part of agroecology is the recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge. Passed on from generation to generation and deeply embedded in the culture of a community, traditional knowledge provides useful information about the local landscape and agricultural needs. La Via Campesina fosters farmer-to-farmer transmission of information and innovation through observation.
Promoting Peasant Rights
Peasants are increasingly being displaced and discriminated against in every part of the world. Corporations continue to violate their basic rights while peasants struggle to protect them, sometimes dying in the process. In 2017, 207 men and women were killed for defending their land, forests and water; a quarter of them were Indigenous.
It must also be noted that the term “peasant” does not carry negative connotations; as defined by La Via Campesina, “A peasant is a man or woman of the land, who has a direct and special relationship with the land and nature through the production of food and/or other agricultural products.” Many think peasant is a pejorative word, indicative of a low status. In a modern context, there is no association between the word “peasant” and “low class.”
La Via Campesina promotes a Universal Declaration on the rights of peasants and other rural workers. This Universal Declaration includes the right to an adequate standard of living, seeds, land, information, justice and gender equality.
La Via Campesina has made substantial, lasting accomplishments. Multiple countries have made food sovereignty a part of their national policies and constitutions. After heavy lobbying, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants was adopted in 2018.
Djigal, a small-scale fish producer from Senegal, shares her thoughts on the matter. “…A movement like this allows us to globalize the struggle…For a long time, peasants didn’t know what was at stake in these negotiations. But through this movement, we’ve become more educated. Now we can speak for ourselves.”
The impacts of this movement cannot be overstated. It is a daunting task to shift the balance of power of the global food system towards small-scale farmers, indigenous people and rural women. Advocates of industrial capitalism believed peasants would disappear, but here they are, fighting around the world for their rights.
– Fiona Price